In late June, after a team function related to D.C. United’s future stadium, General Manager Dave Kasper joined Coach Ben Olsen and investors Erick Thohir and Jason Levien for an Italian feast at Ghibellina on 14th Street NW in Washington.
Thohir lives in Indonesia and doesn’t visit often, so the brain trust took advantage of the rare occasion for a face-to-face conversation about the direction of the wayward MLS team. Beyond the substandard match performances through four months, it was clear to everyone that United‘s frugal spending was setting the organization further and further behind in a league with a growing number of ambitious spenders.
For years, Kasper had worked magic with the salary cap and Olsen had squeezed every last drop from limited means to claw into the playoffs. However, until Audi Field, a 20,000-capacity venue equipped with ironclad revenue streams, moved closer to reality, the pair would have to make do.
On this night, about one year before the proposed inaugural match at Buzzard Point, talk pivoted from resourcefulness to increased resources.
“They were at a point now,” Kasper recalled Thursday, “where they were seeing daylight with the stadium being built.”
So with the blessing of Thohir and Levien, Kasper and Olsen began plotting a course to both improve the roster right away and create a framework for many seasons to come. Over the course of MLS’s summer transfer and trade window, last-place United shook up the squad like no other MLS team by trading two regulars, adding two players who wouldn’t have been financially attainable in the past, and signing two others.
“In the past, two or three times a year, we would have board meetings, and it was always about when we get into the new building, there’s going to be a real level of investment into players,” Kasper said. “They said, ‘We’re here now.’ ”
United wasn’t going to start making Neymar-type offers or even follow the lead of MLS’s liberal spenders in Seattle and Toronto. But it was ready to open the vault and shed its miserly image.
The biggest acquisition was Paul Arriola, an up-and-coming wing with the U.S. national team. At 22, his stock has been rising since starting two World Cup qualifiers and four CONCACAF Gold Cup matches this year. To pry him from his four-year employer, Mexican club Tijuana, United would have to spend. And not just on salary.
United purchased Arriola for a transfer fee exceeding $3 million; the club record was $1.4 million to Argentina’s Boca Juniors last year for midfielder Luciano Acosta. D.C. also had to purchase Arriola’s MLS rights from the Los Angeles Galaxy for $500,000 in league-issued financial considerations known as allocation money.
“The days of floating second-round picks or $150,000 in allocation money,” Kasper said, “those days are gone, especially when you’re going after a prized asset like Paul. We were determined to get this deal done.”
Arriola will also earn about $1 million per season through 2020, more than doubling his Tijuana salary.
It’s a major investment, one that United believes will pay long-term dividends.
“Sometimes you do these deals and you feel like today maybe we overpaid a little bit,” Kasper said, “but six months from now, you’re laughing.”
If United hadn’t jumped now, Kasper said, Arriola’s price could’ve grown by 50 percent this winter and 100 percent after next year’s World Cup. MLS’s Orlando City and Portugal’s Sporting Lisbon were also interested in him.
United did not have to pay a fee to Germany’s Kaiserslautern to acquire Hungarian midfielder Zoltan Stieber, but his salary, estimated at more than $1 million and guaranteed through 2019, exceeded D.C.’s normal boundaries.
In its history, United has had only one contract of more $1 million: Argentine midfielder Marcelo Gallardo in 2008. This year alone, MLS Cup favorite Toronto employs three players making between $4.8 million and $7.2 million.
Last week, United seemed willing to pay several million to Italian club Inter Milan for Chilean defensive midfielder Gary Medel, who would’ve also commanded a salary of at least $4 million. That plan didn’t come to fruition.
United’s other signings, Bolivian forward Bruno Miranda and American midfielder Russell Canouse, were within the club’s standard expenditures.
With the moves, United could feature a midfield for several years of Arriola, 22; Acosta, 23; Canouse, 22; Ian Harkes, 22; and Stieber, 28. The current roster also includes two skilled wingers, Lloyd Sam and Patrick Nyarko.
“Does it heighten expectations? Yeah, hopefully. It’s time for that,” Olsen said. “This is an injection of new blood, of talent, at the right age, who are hungry and represent what myself and Dave and the owners want out of players.”
The recent acquisitions do not address all of United’s needs — the back line and front line remain suspect — but a transfer and trade window yields only so many players. United will continue evaluating free agents before the Sept. 15 roster freeze.
“We also want to take the rest of this season to see how all of this comes together,” Kasper said, “and see what we can learn about this group.”
It will also afford Olsen time to start molding a better team, with an eye on 2018.
And when the winter trade and transfer window opens, the decision-makers plan to revisit their higher-end marketplace.
“It’s another great step for the club,” Olsen said of the recent moves. “We’ve had a lot of almost steps. And now it’s real. Audi Field is here. A plan that has been enacted by Dave and ownership, you are seeing it all come together.”
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